How do you define the co-directing responsibilities? As the film’s credited screenwriter, Kosta, was there ever a struggle between your vision on the page and the practicalities of shooting?
Kosta Ouzas: Going into the film as co-Directors we had a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities we would each undertake. I was particularly interested in working with the actors and preserving the intentions of the screenplay and Nick was adept at interpreting this into the visual style you see on the screen. This became very effective during the shoot, because we essentially had four eyes on each take and it allowed us to focus on different aspects of a shot and achieve things much quicker than we would have otherwise. I had the freedom to get deeply into the scene with the actors while Nick would be working with the crew to set-up the next shot. I personally found the experience more liberating than restrictive.
As screenwriter, once we found our location, the script needed to be re-written to accommodate the shed and its surroundings. Initially the story was set in an abandoned house, but I believe the shed we found, which had been used primarily for livestock, was a much more unique place to set our story. It also felt much more like a fortification than a house ever could. Taking elements and setting into account and re- writing the script really enabled me to blend my vision with any practicalities that might have become an obstacle during the shoot.
Nick Kozakis: From the outset I had a clear idea of the story Kosta was trying to tell. It was my responsibility to ensure that through composition and blocking the story was being told in the most effective way. Dividing the roles allowed me to spend much more time with the crew, especially the cinematographer Tim Metherall and camera operator Carl Allison, to get the very raw and distinct style you see in the film. I developed a complete set of storyboards for the film, so on the day, Kosta and I knew exactly how the scene was going to look, so it was a matter of getting what he had prepared for during the scriptwriting and pre-production process.
The zombie film as broad social satire is well known, but using the genre to work through more gender-based issues feels very unique. How did the concept form?
We wanted to tell an intimate story and by focusing on the characters, more personal issues began to reveal themselves. The choice of a female protagonist, quite uncommon in the zombie narrative, inevitably created a different and unique perspective. Our interest in the unconscious social contract that exists between people in a civilised society, once broken down, opens up thought-provoking behaviour in people and society seems to revert back to past ways of thinking. We felt that the progress made in gender roles in the last century would be the first thing to crumble and used this as a theme that we would explore throughout the story.
The trio of core actors go through some particularly tough scenes, both physically and emotionally. Was there a long rehearsal period in which they honed the chemistry or were these scenes as raw to film as they are to watch?
We went through a short rehearsal period prior to shooting, where we focused on creating the backstory of the survivors immediately after the outbreak. Answering important questions about when they met, how they had been surviving and what ultimately brought them to where the film begins, the actors were able to create the relationships and alliances you see in the film. On the shoot, the cast and crew shared accommodation in a chalet at the top of Mt. Buller and during the evenings we would discuss the scenes for the next day. Once on location, the scenes really were being performed at that intensity for the first time.
The script is fearless when it comes to depicting the flaws and dark motivations of each protagonist. The narrative remains compelling in spite of characters that, at times, are downright unlikable. How was that balance maintained?
Kosta Ouzas: For me the choices people make under conditions of extreme duress need to be seen under a different light. When you are fighting for your survival and the preservation of your species, it is fair to say that traditional morality and ethics evaporates very quickly. The choices the characters make can at times make them unlikeable, however I do believe that they are at all times understandable. The most difficult part of the screenwriting process for this story was keeping the narrative moving and compelling without changing location. Due to our limited resources we needed to concentrate the majority of the shoot on one location. I had to devise ways to prevent the characters from just picking up and leaving while maintaining the threat from the infected.
When forming a zombie apocalypse scenario, how much backstory did you afford yourself? Was it simply enough to kick off the plot with the characters in place, or did you construct the cause of the ‘plague’?
We wanted our story to have the feeling that the same narrative could have taken place during wartime or a natural disaster, that the story was universal, not one particular to the horror genre. We did draw a significant amount of inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s, ‘Shame’, a film where a couple fight to survive in a war that is never specified, against an enemy that is unnamed. Focusing on the characters from the outset and taking the perspective that, as ordinary people they would be uneducated in the particulars of the infection, enabled us to focus on their emotional destruction rather than any particular scientific specificities. Of course we had our own backstory as to how the infection broke out at ground zero, but we did not feel it was essential for the characters or the audience to know, which ultimately allowed as to get right into the action taking place at the start of the film.
What was crucial about the physical manifestations of your afflicted? Was it enough to be the “More blood! More pus!” kind of horror filmmaker or was there a methodology to the zombies appearance?
It was important to us to make the manifestations of the infection realistic. Our make-up team, Wow FX, under the direction of our head make-up artist Danielle Ruth, discussed with us some major symptoms common to Yersinia Pestis (Black Death) including loss of fluids, resulting in pale skin, severe weight loss, hypotension and lacerations of the skin. These would still allow the host to move quickly and attack, but longevity of life is severely affected. We used make-up and effects to heighten a scene, to make it more visceral and impactful, but never the focus. We always wanted the characters to take centre stage.
You use the vastness of rural Australia with a very precise eye; the cinematography of Tim Metherall is superb, especially in the final scenes. How did you and he manage to make such wide expanses feel so chillingly claustrophobic?
Nick Kozakis: The rural landscape of this country already has a distinct character in Australian cinema and we used that to our advantage. The heat makes the atmosphere heavy, and choosing to shoot at times overcast rather than clear created the moody, foreboding tone present throughout the film. Tim Metherall used the natural conditions to our advantage, using different times of day, predominantly sunrise and sunset to shoot outdoor scenes creating a harsh contrast between the grittiness of the background while highlighting the action in the foreground. Our set- ups were quite precise, as location scouting in pre-production directly reflected the images illustrated on the storyboards, so our time was spent composing our shots, rather than searching for them. The shed and the surrounding area is itself a character in the story, and shooting our exteriors mostly looking towards the shed, gives the impression there is nowhere for the characters to go, creating that claustrophobia despite the vastness around it.